Given a set S of nxn permutation matrices (which is only a small fraction of the n! possible permutation matrices), how can we find minimal-size subsets T of S such that adding the matrices of T has at least 1 in every position?
I am interested in this problem where S is a small subgroup of S_n. I am wondering whether it is possible to find (and implement!) approximation algorithms that are much quicker than the greedy algorithms (run many times until it got 'lucky', which is a very slow procedure but nonetheless it has given some near optimal bounds in small cases), or whether inapproximability guarantees that I cannot.
A few easy facts about this problem: A length n cyclic group of permutation matrices solves this problem, of course optimally. (At least n matrices are needed because each permutation matrix has n ones and there are n^2 ones needed.)
The sets S of which I am interested do not have a n-cyclic group in them.
This problem is a very special case of set cover. Indeed, if we let X be the set (1,2, ... n)*(1,2,... n), with n^2 elements, then each permutation matrix corresponds to a size n subset, and I'm looking for the smallest subcollection of these subsets that cover X. Set cover itself is not a good way to look at this problem, because approximation of the general set cover problem.
The only reason why this problem is not much too slow using the greedy approach is because symmetry in the permutation group helps eliminate a lot of redundancy. In particular, if S is a subgroup, and T is a small subset which is a minimal covering set, then the sets sT (multiply T by any element of the group s) are still in S and still are a covering set (of course of the same size, so still minimal.) In case you were wondering, the successful case has n~30 and |S|~1000, with lucky greedy results having |T| ~37. Cases with n~50 have some very poor bounds taking a very long time to get.
To summarize, I am wondering if there are approximation approaches to this problem or if it is still general enough to fit within some inapproximability theorem- like there is for the general set cover problem. What algorithms are used to approximate related problems in practice? It seems like there may be something possible since the subsets are all of the same size and every element appears at the same small frequency 1/n.